Archive for June, 2020

Summer of Reckoning

June 29, 2020

Marion Brunet’s debut novel for adults, Summer of Reckoning, (now translated by Katherine Gregor) won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, a prestigious French award for crime fiction which has been running since the 1940s, in 2018. This is both a recommendation of quality but also, to some extent, a deception, because the novel is not a typical example of crime fiction. For a start the violent crime at the centre of the book is exactly there – in fact, if anything, nearer the end. And once it is committed, there is no investigation worth the name in a crime novel entirely lacking a detective. Instead the novel focuses on the lives of its working class characters in a small village in the south of the country, and delivers a biting social commentary of the casual misogyny and racism that is endemic in their attitudes and experiences.

Having said that, the novel is still a whodunit, as it opens with the discovery that sixteen-year-old Celine is pregnant:

“Who’s the piece of shit that did this to you? Who’s the son of a bitch who dared?”

her father, Manuel, shouts at her after slapping her across the face, but she refuses to tell him. Just hours earlier his attitude had been different, if just as unsettling:

“The father smiled proudly his eyes following Celine’s small backside. Sixteen and promising.”

Looks are all Celine has to give her at least some kind of status and power. “At just fourteen,” we are told, “Celine’s triumphant breasts already heralded a bright future if she was able to use those charms.” Her sister, Jo, one year younger, realises, “girls held trump cards,” but at the same time:

“…since they hadn’t drawn up the rules of the game, they were shafted whatever they did.”

Her intelligence allows her a possible escape route, though she is also characterised by her breast size – “so small she doesn’t wear a bra.” Perhaps as a writer of young adult fiction, Brunet is not afraid to see the world as a young adult: for these girls their body, and how they show or hide it, is an central aspect of who they are, and also how they are defined by others.

It is Manuel’s friend, Patrick, who first puts the idea in his head that Said, a boy the girls have known since childhood, might be the father. “You can’t trust a fucking Arab,” he tells him. From this point on Said becomes the prime suspect in Manuel’s mind. Said, on the other hand, seems to feel more affection for Jo – like her, he has a chance of escaping his roots, in his case using his (not necessarily strictly legal) entrepreneurial skills.

Brunet draws attention to the class divide throughout the novel. In one early scene, Céline and Jo climb over the wall to bathe in the pool of an empty villa:

“They used to play at this being their own home, pretended they were princesses or starlets, chatted about a million crazy plans, about riding clubs and trips, putting on a posh accent.”

Céline and Jo are actually invited to such a house when Jo meets a girl at the theatre in Avignon. At the party a boy gets Céline drunk so he can film himself having sex with her, proving that men do not necessarily improve with money. An equally tense scene of class conflict occurs over an ornamental pond, when the client tells Manuel pointedly that she needs it finished:

“He’d happily tell it straight to this posh bitch. These marble slabs, a thousand euros a piece, are already sticking in his throat.”

We can see where Manuel’s anger comes from – a frustration at his general powerlessness. “He longs to fight – constantly and with everybody,” we are told, and the potential for violence, therefore, is always there.

When that violence does occur it is particularly horrific, though perhaps more horrific is the way in which that scene has little repercussion throughout the rest of the novel. In this it is as if Brunet is using the genre to comment on society by breaking the rules of crime fiction in order to highlight injustice. Then novel ends much as it begins (in French its title was L’Ete Circulaire), Céline and Jo largely unchanged, “they still have a little childhood left, with its scraps of hope and its effect on the future.”

The play which Jo sees in Avignon is Edward Bond’s Summer. Bond once said, “It would be too presumptuous of me to say that I consider myself a voice of the working class but I do consider myself a voice from it….” There is something similar in Brunet’s novel, far from polemic or academic, but raw and unfiltered. It lacks the literary style of Annie Ernaux or Eduard Louis, two ‘escapees’, but its directness amid its changing viewpoints is a powerful representation of those left behind.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 3

June 25, 2020

The Truce by Mario Benedetti (1960, translated by Harry Morales 2015)

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti is generally regarded as one of Latin America’s most important authors, yet, up until recently, was virtually unknown in English, with only some poetry and short stories translated. This changed in 2015 with Harry Morales’ translation of his 1960 novel The Truce, published in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic. The Truce is written in the form of a diary of an ordinary man, Santome, who is described as “a sad person with a calling for happiness.” Form is clearly important to Benedetti as the two novels to appear since, Springtime in a Broken Mirror (translated by Nick Caistor in 2018) and Who Among Us? (Morales again in 2019) both feature a number of different narrative viewpoints – in the latter this includes the viewpoint of a writer told via the mechanism of a short story he has written. You can read my review of The Truce here.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve (1947, translated by Sam Garnett in 2016)

Gerard Reve (alongside Harry Mulisch and the already mentioned W F Hermans) was one of the three great Dutch writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Like Hermans, he was still largely unavailable in English by the twenty-first century, despite at one point moving to England and writing only in English. A later novel, Parents Worry, had been translated by Richard Huijing in 1990, but that was as far as it went. Then, in 2016, Sam Garret translated his first novel, The Evenings, a Dutch Catcher in the Rye, described by Philip Huff in the New York Review of Books as “either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters.” This was followed by the translation of two early novellas under the title Childhood in 2018. You can read Philip Huff’s review of The Evenings and Childhood here.

Hill by Jean Giono (1929, translated by Paul Eprile in 2016)

Of all the writers included here, Jean Giono probably least deserves his place. Giono has been regularly translated into English, at times only a year or two after the original publication, translations kept available by publishers such as Peter Owen and the Harvill Press. (His novella The Man Who Planted Trees seems to be permanently in print). Yet, despite this, Giono has not always seemed particularly recognised or respected. In 2016 the New York Review of Books published a new translation by Paul Eprile of his first novel, Hill, a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, with its vivid description of landscape and rural life. This was followed by a translation of his Herman Melville novel (Melville – also by Eprile), and A King Alone (translated by Alyson Waters), which reads like a detective story. The three together show Giono’s versatility and range, and they have recently been joined by his Occupation Diary from Archipelago Books. You can read my review of Hill here.

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980, translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot in 2017)

Like Gerard Reve, Romain Gary also wrote in English at times but this does not mean his work is easily available. Born in Lithuania, he immigrated with his mother to France as a teenager, and wrote mainly in French. He remains the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice (technically it can only be awarded to a writer once), the second time under his pseudonym Emile Ajar. In 2017 his previously untranslated final novel, The Kites, was translated by Miranda Richmond Mouillot and published by New Directions in the US and Penguin Classics in the UK. The Kites tells the story of a small village in Normandy during the German occupation. In 2018 Penguin brought Gary’s wonderful autobiography, Promise at Dawn, back into print, and the same year Verba Mundi reissued The Roots of Heaven with a new introduction by David Bellos. The rest of his work remains out of print but there is, at least, now hope. You can read a review of The Kites by Adam Gopnik here.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1979-78, translated by Geraldine Harcourt 2017)

Yuko Tsishima was a Japanese writer who had won numerous prizes in her own country but had only sporadically appeared in English (in the UK her only appearances had come thanks to the Women’s Press in the late 1980s). In 2017 Penguin Classics published Territory of Light translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who had long translated and advocated Tsishima’s work. A deceptively simple novel, it’s the story of a single mother and her young child. It was followed by a reprinting of Child of Fortune (this seems an admirable tactic of Penguin) and the inclusion of Of Dogs and Walls among the fifty mini-books which celebrated Penguin Modern Classics in 2018. Sadly Geraldine Harcourt died in 2019 and we can only hope someone else will take up the baton for Tsishima’s work. You can read my review of Territory of Light here.


The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (1967-1971, translated by translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman in 1985 / 2019)

Tove Ditlevson was a Danish writer whose troubled life included four marriages, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse, and several stays in a psychiatric hospital. The first two volumes of her autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy were translated in 1985 by Tiina Nunnally and published as Early Spring, but only in 2019 was the project completed. Originally published by Penguin Classics in three volumes (Childhood, Youth and Dependency – though in Danish the title of the final volume, Gift, apparently means both marriage and poison), a one volume edition is due in September. Penguin are also reissuing her novel The Faces next year. You can read a review of the Copenhagen Trilogy by Liz Jensen here.

Arid Dreams

June 22, 2020

Arid Dreams is a selection of short stories by the Thai writer Duanwad Pimwana which has been compiled from four original collections (and one other, newer, story which is uncollected), the earliest of which was published in 1995., and translated by Mui Poopoksakul. Many of the stories are presented from the point of view of a male character – to the point where I had to double check that Pimwana was not, in fact, a man – demonstrating the sexist, misogynistic attitudes that Pimwana believes exist in Thai (and, of course, not only Thai) society. Others are more concerned with class, and the poverty, both material and of hope, endured by her characters. A few even offer a glimmer of light.

‘Men’s Rights’ is the most violent and uncompromising of the stories. In it the main character, Wasu, is convinced his wife is having an affair:

“One image played over and over in his mind: his young wife having sex with another man.”

He becomes determined “he must kill her,” in the end beating her savagely but leaving her alive. Unsurprisingly, she leaves, but this is not what he wants either, as he cannot work and look after their two children:

“His only option was to find his wife and drag her back, by the hair if he must.”

The story verges on the satirical at the end as Wasu and the man his wife has slept with head off together for drink, his act being simply revenge on Wasu for sleeping with a girl he ‘loved’ – though not any more:

“Moddang became a whore the moment she let you take her out.”

For the men in Pimwana’s stories women are often little more than objects. In the title story a Thai on holiday is attracted to a local woman, Jiew:

“I can’t say anything about her face, but her waist, buttocks, and hips, over which the flimsy sarong was pulled tight, were ample in all the right places.”

In the story, as the narrator gets to know Jiew, his attraction to her fades:

“…if all we wanted was to sleep with a woman, we should avoid learning too many details about her, or our lust would dissolve into other feelings.”

Many of Pimwana’s male characters, like the narrator here, though initially abrasive, eventually seem pathetic. Take, for example, the narrator of ‘Kanda’s Eyebrows’, whose obsession over his wife’s looks (“I find it unnerving how fast a woman’s looks change”) leads her to confess she only married him because he forced himself on her. This complete ignorance of a woman’s feelings is also seen in ‘Wood Children’ where a husband assumes his wife’s wood carving of children is a reaction to their inability to conceive (“there was no way he was going to let her distance herself anymore”). He ‘solves the problem’ by lending her the child of one of his workers, and then throws away her carving knife:

“He wasn’t a child misbehaving, but an adult fixing a problem.”

In fact, he is more like a child, throwing away what he does not like or understand rather than allowing his wife to develop independent ideas.

Not all the stories are about relationships between men and women; Pimwana also writes about the struggles of the working class. The best of these is ‘The Attendant’ about a lift attendant:

“A body cannot survive sitting in a confined are forever.”

Pimwana tells the story alongside one from the attendant’s past when he nursed a baby chick, eventually wondering, “What is the point of this chick’s existence?” as he might wonder about his own. In ‘Sandals’ the twelve-year-old Tongjai is travelling with her parents and little brother to harvest sugar cane, school now a distant dream. The story ends on what might be read as a note of hope when first her brother, and then Tongjai jump from the truck after seeing an advert with a woman by a pool in a bikini and flip-flops:

“In that moment, she was dreaming of the beach, the breaking waves, and she imagined her body was a sandal, floating adrift in the middle of the ocean.”

Hope, of a kind, also exists in ‘The Way of the Moon’ which features a father and a son. Given the darkness of some of the previous stories, the opening, where the father leads the son into the night, feels ominous, but is in fact a touching moment of bonding, particularly when the father tells him the beach is theirs:

“We don’t own it in that sense, Son; just that right now, in this moment, the beach belongs to us, that’s all.”

Arid Dreams feels like a perfect introduction to Pimwana’s work as well a still rare glimpse into Thai society at all its different levels. But its themes, of oppression and poverty, are sadly universal.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 2

June 19, 2020

Beyond Sleep by W F Hermans (1966, translated by Ina Rilke in 2006)

Willem Frederik Hermans was a Dutch writer who is generally regarded as one of the three most important post-war writers in the Netherlands, alongside Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve (one of whom may feature later). Despite this, his only previous translation into English was in the 1966 anthology The World of Modern Fiction. Luckily Ina Rilke rescued Hermans from this indignity by translating Beyond Sleep in 2006. The novel tells the story of Dutch geologist on an expedition to the north of Norway which does not go according to plan. This was followed the next year by the more serious The Darkroom of Damocles set during the German occupation of Holland. Sadly, neither made a huge impression, but in 2018 his novella, The Untouched House, also set during war-time, was translated by David Colmer and published by Pushkin Press, who now plan to reprint the previous two novels, so perhaps a Herman revival is on the cards. You can read a review of Beyond Sleep by Michel Faber here.


Seven Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (written during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was a Russian writer of short stories and novellas, most of which were unpublished in his lifetime (1887-1950) due to a combination of bad luck and Soviet censorship. It was not until 1989 that his work began to be published in Russia with a collected edition finally appearing between 2001 and 2005 According to Adam Thirlwell “Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” Although the New York Review of Books Classics imprint has become his de facto publisher in English (beginning with Memories of the Future in 2009), his stories first appeared in 7 Stories from Glass New Russian Writing translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006. Krzhizhanovsky continues to appear in translation with a fifth volume from NYRB, Unwitting Street, is due in August. You can read a review of 7 Stories on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009)

Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone – the direct translation of its title in German used on its original publication in the US by Melville House) was published in 1947, the same year as Hans Fallada’s death. Though Fallada’s work had been translated into English throughout the thirties (indeed, he thought of immigrating to England after Hitler came to power), he was long forgotten until the publication of Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2009. Fallada’s story of an ordinary couple’s resistance to the Nazis was a huge success (you can tell from this list that UK readers still have a keen appetite for anything related to the Second World War) and, like Suite Francaise, was made into a film. Further translations followed, including two more from Hofmann (A Small Circus and Tales from the Underworld) and another late novel, Nightmare in Berlin, translated by Allan Blunden. You can read my review of Alone in Berlin here.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (1947, translated by Damion Searls in 2010)

Hans Keilson was also a German writer, but he left Germany for the Netherlands in 1936 (he was Jewish) and later, under the German occupation, had to go into hiding. His experiences informed Comedy in a Minor Key, translated by Damion Searl and published by Hesperus Press in 2010. This short novel is about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish man, but (proving it’s not entirely autobiographical) the man dies and the couple must find a way to dispose of the body: it’s a fairly dark comedy. Round about the same time the novel he wrote while in hiding, The Death of the Adversary, (in a 1962 translation by Ivo Jarosy) was republished and his first novel, Life Goes On, was translated by Searl in 2012. Though he lived until the age of 101, there were no further novels, though you can also read his 1944 War Diary in English. You can read a review of Comedy in a Minor Key by David Ulin here.


The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo (1986, translated by James Womack, 2010)

The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo has, for many years, lived in the shadow of her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and his (and her) even more famous friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Yet throughout her life she published regularly, although her work mainly consists of stories (many for children) and poetry, leaving her lacking the major novel which is often use to launch a writer in English. The Topless Tower is more a story than a novel – it would be generous to call it a novella. In it the narrator finds himself locked in a windowless room in a tower, which he first saw in a mysterious stranger’s painting. It was a slim introduction to Ocampo’s work, but was followed in 2015 by a selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and, more recently, the posthumous novel The Promise and her first collection of stories from 1937, Forgotten Journey. It seems her work is finally making it into English. You can read my review of The Topless Tower here.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (a selection of short stories written between 1920 and 1952, translated by Ann Marie Jackson in 2014)

Teffi was a Russian writer who began publishing short stories in 1905. She left Russia after the Revolution and settled in Paris. Up until 2014 her stories had only ever been published in English in anthologies. This changed when Pushkin Press brought out a collection of her work translated by Anne Marie Jackson, Subtly Worded, revealing Teffi to be an adept and often amusing proponent of the form. This was followed by two other collections, Rasputin and Other Ironies, and the autobiographical Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. You can read a review of Subtly Worded at JacquiWine’s Journal here.

Winter in Sokcho

June 15, 2020

Winter in Sokcho is the debut novel of Elisa Shua Dusapin, published in French in 2016 and translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins to become the debut novel in Daunt’s new original fiction imprint. The narrator is a young South Korean woman whose mundane existence as a receptionist and maid at a dilapidated guesthouse is disturbed by the arrival of a French graphic novelist, Kerrand. He is there to find the inspiration to write the final volume in a series of adventures of a “globe-trotting archaeologist”; she seems to have run aground in her own life, marooned in her home town in a dead end job.

From the beginning their relationship is one of antagonistic indifference. “He looked straight through me, without seeing me,” she tells us when Kerrand arrives, and the novel will be, in many ways, her quest to be seen, though perhaps by herself as much as him. She, too, finds Kerrand difficult to see clearly:

“I couldn’t read the tone of his voice.”

Both, it seems, decide to show little interest in the other:

“He didn’t respond. Perhaps I bored him. So what?”

In contrast to her becalmed life, Dusapin surrounds the narrator with others her age who are attempting to move on and change themselves. There is the young woman who is recuperating from plastic surgery in the guesthouse (“She looked like a burn victim, the face neither a man’s nor a woman’s”), and the narrator’s boyfriend, Jun-oh, who leaves for an interview with a modelling agency in Seoul. He, too, accepts that plastic surgery may be necessary (“he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done”), and, later, an aunt suggests that this might benefit the narrator. Plastic surgery seems to represent a superficial search for identity by changing the outside, whereas then narrator’s journey takes place on a much deeper level, difficult even for her to understand.

The older characters, like the guesthouse owner Old Park and the narrator’s mother, are meanwhile happy to slowly age where they are –as best exemplified by the guesthouse itself which suffers from power failures and frozen pipes, and is not entirely habitable. The town, too, is portrayed as a place, like the narrator, simply waiting for something to happen:

“That was Sokcha, always waiting, for tourists, boats, men, spring.”

The narrator has a close relationship with her mother but one which can also be suffocating. She suggest that her mother is the reason she cannot leave Sokcha and she sleeps beside her once a week. Yet the closeness is also oppressive:

“That night, between the damp sheets, crushed by the weight of her head on my stomach, I felt her chest rising and falling as she slept.”

Her mother continually criticises her, one moment telling her, “You’ve lost weight. You need to eat more,” and the next: “You need to watch your figure.” When she is with her mother she compulsively eats until she feels nauseous. She tells Kerrand that she learned French, the language of her absent father, “So I could speak a language my mother wouldn’t understand.”

As Kerrand searches for the ‘perfect woman’ for his story, sketching and then abandoning his sketches, the narrator is also searching for something from him. She has as distinguishing scar, a “long, fine line that marked the time I’d fallen on a fish hook,” and it feels as if she has been hooked by Kerrand. Listening to him draw she hears:

“A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin.”

But despite her need to be near him, the “thin paper wall” which separates them does not dissipate, however fragile. Moments when they are close, such as when she takes him to see the border with North Korea, do not develop: afterwards “he’d walk straight past me without saying a word.” His refusal to eat the food she prepares suggests an unwillingness to get to know her. His struggles with his art – “sometimes I think I’ll never be able to convey what I really want to say” – also apply to the narrator, and is perhaps what they sense they have in common.

Dusapin sustains the tension throughout, without the need to accelerate their relationship in the way we might expect. It remains ambiguous even at the end. Dusapin is compared to Marguerite Duras on the cover, and there is some similarity in the prevalence of mood over plot and the sense that the characters’ emotions originate somewhere deep inside them, beyond clear articulation – though Dusapin seems less convinced that everything leads back to sex and death. What is without doubt is that the novel has a seductive, original voice that draws the reader in even if, like the characters, they are not entirely sure what they are looking for.

Almost Lost in Translation Part 1

June 11, 2020

There have been numerous lockdown lists over the last few weeks, and translated literature has not escaped this need to select and recommend, but I recently noticed that some of the books mentioned were not like the others. Most were fresh-faced English versions of the latest work from writers whose journey into other languages was a well-trodden path; or debuts from new discoveries which sales figures or awards had catapulted across the language barrier. Some were even new translations of well-known texts by authors long accepted into the canon. But what about those who almost didn’t make it? Those books, and authors, miraculously lifted from obscurity to new-found, and usually posthumous, fame? So here is my personal recommendations of writer rescued for oblivion in the last twenty years.

Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, translated by Carol Brown Janeway in 2001)
Sandor Marai was a Hungarian author, born in 1900, who ended his life in exile in America, still writing in Hungarian. The fall of Communism (after his death by suicide in 1989) saw his work made available in his home country again though it was Roberto Calasso who rediscovered him for the rest of Europe and Embers was translated into English (not from the original but from a German translation) by Carol Brown Janeway. The novel, which was already sixty years old, begins with two friends who have not seem each other for forty-one years meeting and looking back, and would have already been imbued with nostalgia on its original publication. That its story is one of discovery makes its inclusion here even more appropriate. A further four novels were translated into English from the Hungarian by George Szirtes between 2004 and 2011, and Embers was adapted for theatre by Christopher Hampton. You can read Szirtes on Marai’s rediscovery here.

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szeb (1937, translated by Len Rix in 2001)

Journey by moonlightAnother Hungarian writer, Antal Szerb, was in the process of being discovered in the same year. Journey by Moonlight is Szerb’s second novel and it tells the story of Mihaly, newly married and on honeymoon in Italy, attempting to come to terms with his unusual past. Rix went on to translate Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend, and his last, Oliver VII, which was published in 1942 under a pseudonym as Hungary was occupied by the Nazis and Szerb was Jewish. He would die in a concentration camp in 1945. You can read a review of Journey by Moonlight by Nicholas Lezard, who describes it as “a comedy, but a serious and slyly clever one,” here.


Confusion by Stefan Zweig (1927, translated by Anthea Bell in 2002)

Marai and Szerb are straight forward inclusions in this list as, prior to 2001, neither had Confusionmade much impression in the English-speaking world at all. Not so Stefan Zweig. Yet, it is undeniable that the early years of the twenty-first century saw a Zweig revival, largely thanks to publisher Pushkin Press (which might be said to culminate in the Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Although the first translations published by Pushkin were older ones (such as Beware of Pity and The Royal Game), Confusion was newly translated by Anthea Bell, who would go on to translate many more of his novellas and stories, and also offer new translations of Beware of Pity and The Royal Game (Chess) in the years to come. The novella tells the story of a relationship between a student and the teacher who inspires him, though, as is typical for Zweig, it is also an emotional roller-coaster. Although not Zweig’s most famous work, Robert Macfarlane has described it as “…one of his finest and most exemplary works …. a perfect reminder of, or introduction to, Zweig’s economy and subtlety as a writer.” You can read a review of Confusion by Melissa Beck here.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (1932, translated by Kathie von Ankum in 2002)

Irmgard Keun was a German writer who, until her work was made widely available in English, was perhaps best known as Joseph Roth’s girlfriend. The Artificial Silk Girl is her second novel, originally published in 1932, a wonderfully vivid story of a young girl, Dora, trying to find herself in 1930s Germany. Keun is particularly good on the way in which Dora both uses, and is the victim of, her looks in a novel that still seems relevant today. A translation of Child of All Nations by Michael Hofmann appeared in 2008, and Melville House in the US published translations of Gigli and After Midnight (the latter, by Anthea Bell, admittedly originating from 1985). These 1930s novels can now all be found under the Penguin Classics imprint. Keun spent the Second World War living under an alias, and was, in fact, reported to have committed suicide. Though she survived, the war in many ways ended her literary career, however, a translation by Hofmann of one of her few post-war publications, her 1950 novel, The Man with the Kind Heart, is due this year. You can read my review of The Artificial Silk Girl here.

Suite Francois by Irene Nemirovsky (written 1940-41, published in French 2004, and translated by Sandra Smith the same year)

Probably the most famous rediscovery of the last twenty years is that of Irene Suite FrancaiseNemirovsky. Nemirovsky was from the Ukraine originally but her family settled in France after the revolution and she wrote in French. Her first novel was published in 1926 and she published regularly throughout the 20s and 30s. She was arrested as a Jew in 1942 having completed the first two volumes of the planned five volume Suite Francois. The manuscript survived with her two daughters who were hidden in various places until the end of the war. Nemirovsky, meanwhile, was murdered at Auschwitz just two months after her arrest. The novel, which tells of the time it was written after France’s defeat, was not discovered until almost 60 years later. Its publication led to much of Nemirovsky’s work being translated, including another newly discovered novel, Fire in the Blood, in 2007. You can read a review of Suite Francois by Helen Dunmore here.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz (1975, translated by Tim Wilkinson in 2004)

FatelessImre Kertesz is another Hungarian author, but one from a later generation than Marai and Szerb. This does not mean he was unaffected by the Second World War, however, as he was deported to Auschwitz aged fourteen and only survived by claiming to be older and therefore eligible to work. His first novel, Fatelessness (or Fateless) describes the experiences of a character of similar age, Gyorgy, in a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, though Kertesz denied it was autobiographical. It was originally translated into English in 1992, but was translated again by Tim Wilkinson in 2004, perhaps spurred on by Kertesz’s Nobel Prize win in 2002. Wilkinson went on to translate a number of Ketesz’s novels including Liquidation and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, bringing ten of his novels into English within ten years. You can read a review of Fatelessness by Dorian Stuber here.

I Remember

June 6, 2020

I remember reading Life A User’s Manual in 1988, Harvill number 20, black-jacketed and cool, and everything under ‘By the same author’ still in French, including Je me souviens, I remember. Georges Perec has come a long way since then, in English at least, with even his famous La Disparition translated, still missing the letter e. I Remember’s translation, by Philip Terry, came in 2014, but is now published in the UK for the first time by Gallic Books, with an introduction and notes by Perec expert (and translator of Life A User’s Manual) David Bellos.

I Remember is a series of short statements (480 in all) beginning ‘I remember…’ written between 1973 and 1977 with the memories mainly originating from the 1950s (1946 to 1961, Perec tells us). He explains in a postscript:

“The principle is straightforward: to attempt to unearth a memory that is almost forgotten, inessential, banal, common, if not to everyone, at least to many.”

As David Bellos points out in his introduction, this restriction (you can only include memories that at least one other will share) has a profound effect:

I Remember creates waves of partly overlapping sets of readers who share or do not share this or that memory, pushing each reader now closer to the centre and now further away from it, but leaving one and only one inhabitant of the intersection of all 479 memories.”

The memories included range for the personal:

“I remember that a friend of my cousin Henri spent all day in his dressing gown when he was studying for his exams.”

to the observational:

“I remember the cinema in Avenue de Messine.”

Occasionally they veer into the realm of global news:

“I remember the day Japan capitulated.”

As you can see, the tendency is towards brevity. There is little attempt to recreate the atmosphere or mood of the memory. Although I Remember can be broadly characterised as autobiographical (and Bellos’ notes point out where memories overlap with autobiographical elements in Perec’s other work), it is not intended as a portrait of Perec’s emotional landscape. There is not even much sense of nostalgia, though perhaps that would not be the case if I shared many of Perec’s memories.

I am certainly no longer young, but Perec was born before my parents – he would have been eighty-four this year – so there cannot be many readers who will share remembrance of the decade he describes. Perhaps more pertinently for this translation, there is also a barrier created by Perec’s nationality. His generation was in some ways the last to escape a more uniform western culture, much of which began in the sixties. Therefore the cultural references in Perec’s memories are almost exclusively French in a way they would not be today. Whether magazines or music, theatre or sport, the proper nouns are generally French; only film is exempt, with mention, for example, of Danny Kaye and Shirley MacLaine.

This matters because it seems, in some way, to negate Perec’s intention, which was surely that some of the memories included would invite recognition from his readers, and it also raises the question of what a contemporary, Anglophone audience gains from the book. Of course, some of it is simply interesting:

“I remember that the day after the death of Gide, Mauriac received a telegram saying ‘Hell doesn’t exist. Enjoy yourself. Stop. Gide.’”

The significance of other lines, however, has faded:

“I remember that Christian Jaque divorced Renee Faure in order to marry Martine Carol.”

The clue, I think, is in Perec’s request that “a number of blank pages have been left at the end for readers to write their own ‘I remembers’ which the reading of these ones will hopefully have inspired.” As you read Perec’s book, a second narrative forms in your mind of memories triggered by those in front of you. I don’t remember ‘clackers’ as Perec does, but it does make me think of childhood toys now obsolete. I, too, remember cinemas, my first LP. I can’t remember when “to get a new car you had you go on a waiting list for months, even a year or more,” but I can remember that we rented our television. I Remember is not a book you read but a book you interact with, its content creating your own in a call and response fashion. It is this that allows it to retain relevance and to entertain. I would challenge any reader to resist beginning their own ‘I remember…’ after reading.

The Island

June 2, 2020

Ana Maria Matute is a Spanish writer who has not been much translated into English. The Island, newly translated by Laura Lonsdale, will hopefully be a first step in rectifying this, although it has actually been translated before as The School of the Sun (the original title, Premira Memoria, has yet to be used). It is the first in an autobiographical trilogy, followed by Soldiers Cry by Night and The Trap. Matute was ten years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out and this has had a profound effect on her writing. The Island, set on the island of Mallorca, opens as the war begins on mainland Spain and influences events on the island as old divisions and hatreds come to the surface. The story is told from the point of view of Matia, a fourteen-year-old girl, who is staying on the island with her grandmother as her mother is dead, she has been expelled from her convent school, and her father has abandoned her to fight for the ‘other side’ (the family are Catholics):

“The war that had lost, shipwrecked, scuppered my father, with his wicked ideas.”

(The reference to shipwreck is surely meant to remind us of another island, Prospero’s, and the separation of father and child in The Tempest, which begins with its own civil war, pitting brother against brother).

Matia’s only friend on the island is Borja, but it is a friendship of convenience:

“We were bored and exasperated in equal measure, amid the oily calm and hypocritical peace of the island.”

Borja steals from his grandmother but is “sweet and gentle” when he is with her. Matia describes him as “weak, cruel and proud, just a good-for-nothing boy on the way to being a man.” Among those he bullies is the young man who has been hired to tutor them, known as Chinky. Borja claims to know something about Chinky that gives him power over him. Matia is indifferent to this: though not cruel, she, too, would rather roam the island than study Latin.

The title of the original translation, The School of the Sun, is easily understood on only a brief acquaintance with the novel:

“On the island I came to know the sun, which made the flowers tremble in Guiem’s garden and which pierced the mist to become a damp, slow fire evaporating over the chalices of their petals.”

The sun is generally portrayed as violent and hurtful, creating a “whiplash of light in the air.” The atmosphere on the island is oppressive: “a grey sky” we are told, is “swollen like an infection.” Even a word like ‘shimmering’ is immediately tainted by the simile which follows:

“…the sea shone a pale green, shimmering like a sheet of metal.”

The natural beauty of the water becomes something unyielding and imprisoning.

That oppression is echoed in the deep-lying tensions which exist on the island, now exacerbated by the war. As Laura Lonsdale points out in her introduction, these tensions were partly political and partly racial. Islanders with Jewish origins, even if they have long converted to Christianity, are still regarded with suspicion. In the novel Matia befriends Manuel Taronji after his father is murdered. The murder is political, but presumably sanctioned by the fact that the family are ‘Chuetas’ or originally Jewish, as can be seen from their name and red hair. They live isolated and shunned:

“…it was as if they lived on a different island, in the middle of my grandmother’s lands.”

Borja is particularly dismissive of Manuel – “Redhead. Dirty Jew. Filthy Chueta” – a dislike that becomes personal when the possibility that he is the illegitimate son of Jorge of Son Major raises its head. Jorge is one of the few people Borja admires, while also harbouring hopes of being his undeclared son:

“If there was one thing in the world he wanted… it was that one day people would talk about him as they did about Jorge of Son Major.”

Matia’s decision to befriend Manuel, and move outside Borja’s influence, is at the heart of her coming-of-age story. One particular moment of epiphany is brilliantly captured by Matute when Matia declares that the way Manuel’s family has been treated is wrong and she realises “I was saying something I hadn’t thought of until that moment, a thought still hazy in my mind.” She goes on:

“Suddenly, I lifted myself out of it all. I was myself, alone.”

What before had simply been loneliness is now also an affirmation of self, something separate from circumstances. At the same time she is aware that their friendship cannot last:

“I remember I entered a strange zone, like a stretch of unsettled waters, and with each day that passed I felt fear gaining ground in me.”

Matute plays out the tensions and conflicts of the civil war among the inter-related families of the island and, as Matia will discover, no-one will be left guiltless. The Island is a dense, demanding story which deserves to be read slowly, at the pace which one might walk in the fiery heat of Mallorca. Not only is its sense of place tangible, but it perfectly captures the uncertainties and confusions of adolescence while unveiling a pitiless political landscape.